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With the distribution of live Ultra HD World Cup matches on the point of being tested by several broadcasters later this week, the BBC has announced its intention to go one step further.
It intends to claim a world’s first live Ultra HD production, using entirely Internet-based infrastructure from next month’s Commonwealth Games.
TVs that support Ultra HD or 4K—which is four times the resolution of HD—have started to enter the consumer market, but Ultra HD broadcasting is very much in the experimental stage. While many broadcasters, the BBC among them, have used IP (Internet Protocol) to distribute content between locations, instances of all-IP production in a live environment are rare.
“IP will enable us to be more flexible with services we already produce, and longer term, to introduce new kinds of services,” said Matthew Postgate, controller, BBC R&D. “We wanted to do this in 4K to prove the system is capable of working at the highest resolution and of simultaneously working at all lower resolutions. By the time 4K comes around we won’t have to spend time doing the research all over again.”
Beginning with the Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony on July 23 from Glasgow, Scotland, BBC R&D will produce a series of Ultra HD broadcasts using four Sony F55 4K cameras converted into IP and mixed live before being encoded into HEVC, a compression system suitable for home viewing. To do this, the BBC will use technology of its own devising, dubbed IP Studio, which is a system that includes specially configured PCs to convert each 4K camera signal into IP and a production gallery featuring a multi-viewer and mixer.
Members of the public are being invited to view the output of the experiment from a special viewing area at the Glasgow Science Center, a venue which is also home to the Games’ International Broadcast Center. The Ultra HD programming will be viewable on a pair of 65-inch 4K TVs and on a 4m video wall, presented by the BBC as a vision of the living room of the future.
Further Ultra HD coverage will be produced daily from The Hydro, the Games’ venue for gymnastics, netball, wrestling and boxing.
Part of the production is being deliberately produced in London to test the ability of the system to permit teams in remote locations to work on a live outside broadcast in 4K over IP. To do this, the BBC has arranged to use a UK-wide network of high-speed links operating at 100GB/s. This includes Virgin Media broadband in Glasgow and the Joint Academic NETwork (Janet), a UK government funded network linking the UK’s educational institutions.
“Part of the experiment is about how the network can perform when handling such large bit rates in a live environment,” explained Phil Tudor, principal engineer at BBC R&D. “[IP Studio] is not a complete system. It’s very much research and designed to feed into the BBC’s future broadcast strategy and the standardization efforts being made by the European Broadcasting Union and others. You need these sorts of live field trials to prove whether ideas work.”
Just as in Brazil, there will in addition be concurrent digital television and IP distribution of the Ultra HD coverage in-conjunction with Arqiva and BT to BBC and partner sites in London and Salford.
It could take a while for IP to surpass the efficiency of satellite distribution. One in four UK homes has a super fast broadband connection today (at least 30Mbit/s) according to regulator Ofcom, but the overall picture is patchy with rural areas experiencing considerably slower speeds.
“Not everyone can receive an IP signal and not everyone wants to consume on-demand,” says Carl Hibbert, an analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “Some 97 percent of viewing of BBC channels is still live at the point of broadcast so before we all get carried away with video over IP there is still a massive and crucial role for linear to play.”
“The horizon we work to is 20 years plus,” said BBC R&D’s Postgate. “I think that reflects our desire to make sure all audiences have access to a service they expect of us. That said, our audience is increasingly less homogenous so we need to cater for them all.”
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